William Hague: Never had it so good

Older, wiser, richer. If you're going to be an ex-Tory leader, this is the way to do it
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The Independent Online

He advises people not to go into politics, either, but there is a proviso attached to this second caution which is intended merely to deter those who are not utterly single-minded, wholeheartedly committed to the idea of politics and therefore not entirely normal, a category into which he happily consigns himself. "Well, stuff it, I'm not normal," he has said. One of the things he found most uncomfortable about being leader of the Conservative Party was that he had to pretend to be normal.

He doesn't have to do that any more. In fact he can do what he likes. The publication of the Register of Members' Interests underlined that last week, by confirming what many MPs already suspected: that William Hague is at the top of the big-earning league in the House of Commons making well over a £1m in freelance earnings in the past year. He topped up his parliamentary salary of £59,095 with fees of at least £385,000 for speaking engagements, a column for the News of the World which earned him more than £190,000, two remunerated directorships and the undisclosed profits of his highly successful biography of William Pitt the Younger.

All this may seem to make politics look like quite an attractive career. Yet in many ways Hague's experience has provided an object lesson in the dangers that lurk for those who advance too early in politics. There he was, the "baby" of the House of Commons at 27, the youngest member of the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Wales and the youngest person to lead the Conservative Party since - well, William Pitt - only to become what he describes as "the youngest ex-everything" at the age of 40 and the first Conservative Party leader not to have become Prime Minister. Small wonder then, seeing as he is in the advice business, that Hague apparently told David Cameron not to run for the leadership himself this autumn. It was guidance that the young favourite ignored, and Hague, probably better than anyone, will understand his reasons. In his newspaper column last week he endorsed Cameron as his choice.

This was no surprise to anyone. David Davis was chairman of the Public Accounts Committee during Hague's leadership. "Frankly, the person who did everything to undermine him day to day was David Davis; now his scheming and manoeuvring has come back to haunt him because everyone knows this," says an MP friend of Hague's. There was never any question about who William Hague would support, but there remains uncertainty about whether he will want to forego an element of his freelance earnings in order to return to the Opposition front bench under Cameron's leadership.

His friends - and they are many - would like to see him return. He has been ambivalent about this: putting his services on behalf of the party at the disposal of the leadership of Michael Howard, asserting that he does not seek once again to seek the leadership himself, but carefully failing to rule out some sort of renaissance. It is suggested that he could be Cameron's Shadow Home Secretary, and it would be a popular choice. He is liked in the party: his views are constant, he is without pretension (no elocution lessons for him, despite the advantages they might have brought) and his careless wit is a priceless political passport. He has, however, to make what is termed "a lifestyle decision". Does he really want four years' hard labour, slogging away again in Opposition, when he knows the pleasures and rewards of the alternative?

He evinces the demeanour of an exceptionally happy man. He is comfortable in his skin, good at what he is doing. He enjoys the backbenches, and his book about Pitt the Younger - it had to be an obvious choice - was celebrated by the publishing industry, particularly for a first book.

He appears to be without bitterness about what has happened to him. The reality is that he is an extremely unusual man, even for a politician, and that despite his extraordinary gifts he made a number of monumental mistakes, probably only because of his youth. The biggest of these - which he has apparently admitted, if only in private - was deciding in 1997 to run for the leadership, instead of backing Michael Howard as he had initially agreed to do. "That is his real tragedy," says a Tory MP with whom he has discussed it and who believes that Hague compounded the party's problems in the 2001 election by running a mistaken campaign to "Save the Pound" instead of highlighting the Government's shortcomings on education and health.

"That's why we're still in Opposition," this man suggests now. "Hague is pleasant, witty, funny, clever; he knocked Tony Blair for six in the Commons - and nobody cared. He has enormous ability and no judgement." Curiously this MP echoed almost precisely the words Blair himself once used in the debate on the Queen's Speech in 2000, on one of the few occasions when he got the better of Hague by summing up his leadership as "good jokes, lousy judgement."

There are other examples of bad calls that Hague made during his leadership - the much-mocked "Princess Di-style" water ride at a theme park, an ill-judged appearance at the Notting Hill Carnival, the claim that he used to drink "14 pints of beer a day" as a teenager, the wearing of baseball caps - all of which were clearly intended to try to extend the party's appeal to a more youthful audience. His appointments and dispositions were often problematic - "pretty grim" according to another Tory MP - and his policy-making was described as "flimsy".

Yet these are probably all the excusable mistakes of relative inexperience. One senses that Hague - having studied the life and difficult times of Pitt the Younger - deeply regrets that politics today is so much more shallow, so driven by instant analysis, soundbites and the media. They laughed in the Commons when Pitt became prime minister at the age of 24 - "the schoolboy" he was called - but he nevertheless dominated British politics for the next 22 years, 19 of them as prime minister. It was, oddly enough, his father Pitt the Elder who provides William Hague with the necessary apologia. He said in the Commons in 1741: "The atrocious crime of being a young man... I shall neither attempt to palliate or deny".